Showtime’s “House of Lies” is one of the midseason’s best new comedies

By Kate O’Hare

Off an alleyway in downtown Los Angeles, a door leads into The Edison, a former private power plant transformed into an “Industrial Cathedral,” with crystal chandeliers and overstuffed furnishings layered amid iron and bronze reminders of its mechanical past.

Down a metal staircase is a lounge near the main bar, with Persian rugs and exposed brick walls, cluttered with more furniture, where the crew of Showtime’s new comedy House of Lies has set up shop for the day.

Created by Matthew Carnahan, the half-hour show is based on Martin Kihn’s book House of Lies: How Management Consultants Steal Your Watch and Then Tell You the Time. Be forewarned, this series isn’t for the mannerly. It’s raw and at times raunchy, the language crude and the characters unapologetic for their unscrupulous morals, all of which combine to make it a scandalously fun new comedy/drama.

Leading the series is Don Cheadle as Marty Kaan, a top performer at a high-end consulting firm, who is not exactly overflowing with scruples and business ethics when it comes to convincing companies they need his team’s services and should pay top dollar (along with an open spigot of perks). But Marty’s quick to explain his rationale on things, in quick freeze-frame confessionals of a sort interspersed through the series.

In this particular episode, the quest to please a client has led Marty’s team down those stairs and into a dark club. To the accompaniment of throbbing music, things get intermittently interesting between Marty and ambitious team member Jeannie Van Der Hooven (Kristen Bell), and intermittently weird between team members Clyde Oberholt (Ben Schwartz) and Doug Guggenheim (Josh Lawson).

“They’re not great,” says Bell of her dancing skills afterward (with high-heeled shoes off as soon as filming is done). “They’re all right. Listen, comparatively, to the four men I’m dancing with, I’m Baryshnikov on that dance floor.”

Seated in an ornate, high-backed chair off the dance floor, Cheadle describes his character as “complicated and dark and messed up, in a good way. He’s dealt with some tragedy when he was young, at a pretty significant time in his development, when these things tend to happen to people, and it changes the heart of who you’re going to be.

“And if you don’t get back to it and really ever deal with it, you’re on that path forever. Marty, as we will see in the series, is not really dealing with what’s happening to him.”

Asked how Marty wound up in consulting, Cheadle says, “I think it’s as much that he ran toward this as he ran away from something else and just figured out that, fortunately or unfortunately, he had skills in this area. The things that saved him, in a way, are ultimately things that are his undoing in other situations.

“He has a certain fearlessness and a recklessness, a real sort of Machiavellian delight in manipulating situations.”

Curled in a large red chair at the top of the stairs, Bell reveals that her character Jeannie — an Ivy League grad with a sketchy past — is no less interesting than her boss.

“She is quite mysterious,” she says, “and that is the reputation that she would like to have. Jeannie doesn’t want you to know too much about her. She’s extremely compartmentalized — one part of her life does not relate to the other.

“She’s not diseased. She is choosing when to pick up her integrity and when to put it down. She may have come from a meager background, but she is a go-getter. No mistake, she wants your job, no matter what the job is.

“She’s almost hungrier than Marty is, in a few different ways, although she keeps that hidden. As much as she gets along with him, she’s still ready to pounce when another position opens up for her to move up.

“She has very high hopes for herself. She simply said, ‘I’m going to succeed,’ and she made it happen no matter what the cost.”

“Marty loves her,” says Cheadle, “wants to see her do well, sees her as a mentee, a person that he’s grooming. But it’s a real tough love. It’s a ‘Great Santini’ kind of thing.”

House of Lies premieres on Showtime Sunday Jan. 8.